Industry to Phase Out Arsenic-tainted Wood
Peter Eisler, USA Today
Washington, DC — The nation's most popular pressure-treated
lumber will be phased out of use by the end of 2003 because it contains
arsenic, but federal officials say there is no need to tear down countless
decks and playsets across America.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that
manufacturers have voluntarily agreed to halt residential uses of wood
permeated with chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, an arsenic-laden pesticide
used in 90% of all pressure-treated lumber.
Final negotiations on the agreement, which has been
anticipated for weeks, focused largely on the advice the EPA would offer to
consumers who already own CCA-treated structures. Tuesday's announcement
suggested only that people may want to coat them with an oil-based sealant.
"We haven't completed a scientific assessment (of the
arsenic risks) so it's difficult to say" what consumers should do, says
Stephen Johnson, the EPA's chief of pesticide regulation. "We don't
believe there's any reason to remove or replace existing structures, such as
decks or play structures, or to disturb surrounding soils."
There's considerable scientific debate over the risks of
arsenic in treated wood. The toxic metal is known to cause various cancers and
is especially risky for children.
The EPA is proceeding with a study of the risks associated
with industrial uses of CCA-treated wood that will remain permitted, such as
utility poles and guardrails. It's unclear whether that study will evaluate the
threats posed by CCA-treated lumber in residential uses. That, officials say,
depends on whether initial research suggests that health threats in those
settings warrant further evaluation, given that new residential uses of CCA are
The phaseout marks the demise of the last
consumer-marketed pesticide known to cause cancer. It also will reshape the
$4-billion-a-year pressure-treated-lumber industry.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., introduced legislation Tuesday
to ban any new residential use of CCA-treated wood immediately. Several state
legislatures also are expected to consider similar bills, including legislation
to halt the wood's use in public playgrounds.
Dave Fowlie of CSI, one of three licensed producers of CCA
for the wood-preserving industry, says many treatment plants already are
shifting to alternative chemicals. His company began developing a substitute,
alkaline copper quaternary, about seven years ago and will boost production to
meet new market demands.
"The big issue is the conversion of our customers —
the people who actually treat the wood," he says, noting that
wood-treaters will have to change piping and other equipment to convert from
CCA to any alternative. Some estimate that 350 wood-treatment plants nationwide
The treated-wood industry has commissioned studies showing
that arsenic exposure from a typical deck or play structure is minimal,
amounting to about what a person might get from soil and drinking water.
Studies also have shown that the amount of arsenic leaching from treated
structures tends to diminish substantially after about six months.
However, academic reviews and studies done by consumer and
environmental groups have found extremely high arsenic exposures for people in
regular contact with CCA-treated wood, especially in the case of children who
play on the material. Analyses of CCA-treated playgrounds in Florida,
and other states have documented arsenic levels far above federal safety
standards, even on structures a decade old.
"Our hope is that this agreement will put a scarlet
letter on this product and people will just stop buying it," says Paul
Bogart of the Healthy Building Network, which pushed to get CCA-treated wood
off the market.
Experts suggest several options to reduce arsenic exposure from
Paints and sealers help contain arsenic leaching. The Environmental
Protection Agency recommends conventional water sealer because more impervious
coatings, such as paints and urethanes, can peel when they get old. Sanding
peeling paint or urethanes off an arsenic-treated surface can be risky.
Physical barriers, usually in the form of plastic-
and vinyl-based covers, are available for many pressure-treated structures.
These materials are made to fit over standard-size decking and structural
members, like conventional vinyl siding, and are available in various colors
Replacement of treated wood can be done with a variety of substitute
products on the market. Some companies offer wood treated with different
federally approved chemicals. Others firms sell wood substitutes made from
recycled plastic and rubber, even rice straw.
Home test kits to
check arsenic levels in pressure-treated decks, play sets and other structures
are available, at cost, from the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit
research organization, through its Web site (www.ewg.org).
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